Kaitlyn Purcell is a member of Smith’s Landing First Nation, and the Writing Revolution in Place creative research collective. She is a PhD student at the University of Calgary studying Indigenous literatures, creative writing, and community-based learning. Her work is inspired by her experiences as a troubled adolescent in Edmonton, detached from her Dene roots. She has won numerous awards for her creative work, such as the Stephen Kapalka Memorial Prize in Creative Writing (2015) and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Young Artist Prize (2017).
Who are you and what’s your zodiac sign?
My name is Kaitlyn Purcell. I am a proud member of Smith’s Landing First Nation, as well as the Writing Revolution in Place creative research collective. My mother is Dene from Fort Smith. My father is Irish, and he is from Ottawa. I was born and raised in Edmonton with my three sisters. When I was a child, I looked up to my sister Lorrie who was a poet and artist. When I was probably around the age of 6 or 7, I burnt my finger on one of her candles and then stole an astrology book from her room. My Sun is in Pisces, Virgo rising, Moon in Leo, Venus in Aries, and Mars in Gemini.
What is ʔbédayine about?
ʔbédayine is a series of stories inspired by my adolescent years in Edmonton. ʔbédayine is about sexual sovereignty. It’s about Indigenous ways of knowing, the importance of community, and the effects of intergenerational trauma. I’ve always loved my mother’s hometown Fort Smith, but, like most small communities, it seems like a difficult place for queerness to exist.
ʔbédayine means “its spirit”; in Denesuline. I do not know much of the language, but I am planning to learn more. Growing up in Edmonton, I knew very little about what it meant to be Indigenous, let alone what it means to be Dene. In the city, it was troubling to see that much of the homeless population was Indigenous. Fortunately, I was able to connect with my relatives in Fort Smith each summer. Being up north I was able to learn about the importance of eating together and sharing our stories.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of writing ʔbédayine?
There were several years between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four where I was trying so hard to become normal. I just wanted to forget my past traumas. In this undoing, I lost a sense of compassion for myself and others who were dealing with similar struggles. My sister Lorrie battled with her mental health and addictions for so many years until 2014 when she passed away from an overdose. After her death, I spent some time thinking about her life and mine. I realized that I cannot carry shame for my past anymore if I want to survive, and if I want to be better able to help others survive their own traumas. Since then, I have started to open myself up again, learning how to make peace with my past and my memories. I wouldn’t have been able to write this without the support of my family, and the mentors and friends that I’ve made along the way.
What are some books you’ve read and enjoyed lately?
I have had a lot of reading to do for my course work these last five months, but I have finally found the space to do my own extracurricular reading (this is a massive feat for me and my ADHD). In the last few weeks I have read and loved Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed, Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men, Christine Stewart’s Treaty 6 Deixis. I’ve just started reading Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth. All of these books are incredibly important pieces of literature.
I’ve been researching Indigenous literatures and ways of knowing ever since I took my first class on Indigenous lit early on in my undergrad. It wasn’t until I read Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach that I began to truly understand why addictions and mental illness have affected myself and my family so deeply. We all need to understand our treaty rights, and our history as people living on Turtle Island. We need to learn more about these borders that isolate our Indigenous peoples who live on reservations. Healthcare, education, clean water, and mental health resources have all been neglected and underdeveloped on these reservations. It is difficult to develop stronger communities when our people are suffering physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
I want to leave you with a little story. When I was little, I was extremely imaginative and sensitive. I had no problem being alone, because in my mind I could create anything. One day early on in kindergarten when I had no friends yet, I was playing in the trees alone at recess. It was a beautiful day. Blue skies and green everywhere. I was prancing around, pretending that I was hanging out with some fairies, when my wiggling tooth popped out of my mouth. It fell on the ground, and since I had a strange fear of blood I started to cry. But of course, I needed to find this tooth to give it to the tooth fairy. So, I bent down to pick up this tooth, and the second I placed my fingers around the tooth I heard a plop and my hair was warm and wet. A bird took a shit on my head. At this point I went from crying to really crying. I ran to the school holding out my bloody tooth in one hand and my shit covered hair in the other. When I told my aunty this story, she said it means I’m lucky.
a town that sits just above the border between alberta and the northwest territories, dene metis dogrib and the fur trade washed up on the slave river and some of the caribou eaters were sent here in the 60s, canadian government whispered a strange lullaby wanted their people all in one place and out of alberta, burned down their homes so they couldn’t turn back, a lullaby drowning in fiction instead of living off the land they were living in a town with no running water and no paint on their houses and children pushed into residential schools poisoned families and lives generations of family buried in alberta while the rest of them were laid to rest in the northwest sundays spent with the creator and the church can still hear the whispering whistles down in the crypt now the town is torn and whole and smells like buffalo hide
I look at the spinning city streets; the speed of the car is traced in a blur past the street signs. I sit in the back of a Pontiac Grand AM with a seatbelt wrapped over my body. A man with long peppered hair sits in front of the wheel; his face looks like a handsome brown cactus. A young boy with an oversized hoodie sits beside him, flicking his fingers across the stereo controls to turn up the volume as “A milli, a milli..." begins to blare. Swimming in a hoodie and in the seat as he grabs a cigarette out to light it, his body bounces in a cloud of smoke. Little brown eyes light up, and he looks at the driver and at the other cars as he begins to rap along with Lil Wayne:
“Motherfucker I’m ill!”
As we are making a left turn in a busy intersection, the right door in the back flips open. I clench my seat, holding my breath. As the car straightens out, the door slams shut, and I panic my arms about to lock it. The driver looks back for a second, “Ah, shit. Yeah that door doesn’t lock up too good.”
We drive into the anus of the city, across from China Town by the government buildings. I get out and light a cigarette. Copper glass reflects the sun residue, and the day residue dips into the edges of the sky. A young man walks up to me.
When I see him I smile. He has big dick in his pants and little bags of drugs in his pockets. He likes to buy me French fries and hot chocolate and he likes to open all the doors.
We wander, and he trades little bags for $10 bills until it is pretty late, and we are standing in the white fluorescence of an underground parkade. A girl is crouched down with a glass pipe filled with white smoke thick like coffee cream. She guzzles the high and moves her body in a scattered rippling rhythm as she exhales. “Jib-tech”, she calls herself. A golden heart fucked with the crack fashion, tight tank top and cargo pants. She likes to wiggle her butt when she walks and sings to the sky as she moves across the downtown sidewalk.
I meet a man who says, “I’d spend $2000 for a night with you.” Flattery darts over me before I begin to feel like a piece of furniture. I am the couch lost in the woods, and I don’t have the mouth to say, “Fuck off.”
We burn the broken furniture; pale wooden ghosts prod my knees. City park picnics with cigarettes and crack pipes, the Wiggling Body sells mom’s Ativan and says, “Show me the way to the cigarette garden.” Large hand on the back gently nudges. Show me the way. A kite slowly falls into the tree.
Under the influence of the pet rabbit that fell stiff in my hands at the age of six, hands that held lifeless long ears and soft brown fur. The influence of melancholy and insanity, I both regret and enjoy, and I apologize with absences and elusions. It feels better falling down.
Only pretty girls wither away. These boys love to see my bones, and they love the legs open lullaby. I sing better when I’m high.
Have you ever felt joy that burrows into your gut? Joy that makes your eyes shake and skin hold onto the summer night? Heroin could save me from this.
I like to see the moth written across his eyes. I am your moonlight, baby.
Slutty, sketchy, skanky, scum, the ‘s’ kisses the space between my teeth. We are going to die anyways, might as well die in the hole of the high. Here, the whole world holds me. The jibtechs meet in the city gardens. It’s safer being forest fairies, setting up tents in the river valley, filling the tent with that wicked wet-dog smell, the fog of meth.
“I love you,” he said. My hollow cheeks blush. The drug dealer that needs me, and I need his drugs and to look at his pretty brown eyes. I keep wanting to get hit with feelings, deformed with ecstasy. I like it when your heart seeps into your eyes; I like to see it bleed.