Although she recently bought a house on the other side of the Red River, not too far away, for many years Katherena Vermette lived in Winnipeg's North End, a working-class neighbourhood with a complicated history.
It was, she says, "an interesting place growing up, because on one hand we were very proud of where we lived – it's a neighbourhood that has amazing old houses, and there's so much character, and there's these great big trees, and there's the river right over there. It's a gorgeous place. But it has a very bad rap. We used to go to other neighbourhoods in the city and, of course, everyone always thought that we were from the rough part of town."
Vermette, who spent the majority of her teenage years in the North End, and moved back as an adult, was both prideful and defensive of her home turf, but "at the same time there [was] kind of this sadness. Yeah, you want to run away sometimes, too."
There are 10 different narrators in Vermette's virtuosic debut novel, The Break, which was published last month, but the city's North End might be the most important character of all.
The novel's homographic title also refers to an area, "about three or four lots wide," that cuts through the neighbourhood like a scar; it's a corridor for hydro towers, which loom for nearby businesses and houses like "a frozen army, standing guard," as Vermette writes. "In the winter, the Break is just a lake of wind and white, a field of cold and biting snow that blows up with the slightest gust." It is here, in the opening chapter, a young mother named Stella witnesses a terrible crime, the profundity and tragedy of which reverberates through the rest of the novel.
Vermette, 39, is sitting in a quiet corner of the lobby of her Toronto hotel last Tuesday afternoon. She's tired. "It's been busy," she says. "I wouldn't complain about it, because it's what I worked for."
The previous evening she had an event in Ottawa; the previous weekend you'd have found her in Vancouver for a writers' festival; a few days before that she was in Toronto for the imagineNATIVE festival, where she was presenting her first film, this river, a short documentary produced with the National Film Board, about family members searching the Manitoba waterway for their missing loved ones. ("The river has become a focal point because the river is where so many things are found. And, unfortunately, some of those things are bodies.")
The film came about after she won the Governor-General's Literary Award, in 2013, for her first collection of poems, North End Love Songs; the book contained a longer piece, November, about her own stepbrother's disappearance, almost exactly 25 years ago. (He was eventually found north of the River, in Lake Winnipeg; the circumstances around his death remain a mystery.)
The Break was nominated for the GG as well, this time for fiction, but a few hours before our interview it was announced the prize went to Madeleine Thien. Still, that evening, Vermette was scheduled to give a public reading alongside the other nominees for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, for which The Break is also a finalist. The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced on Wednesday.
Vermette reads the same passage every time, preferring, she tells me, to keep things light – a tall order for a novel whose plot hinges on a violent sexual assault.
"There's a lot of heaviness in the book, so I avoid that for audiences' sake," she says, and motions to the copy of the novel sitting on the table. "I put a trigger warning at the front of the book. I acknowledge that there's a lot of things in the book that are jarring for people. And, especially, in an audience setting, I don't want to bring that out without warning.
"I wrote this book for indigenous women," she adds. "I wrote this book for the people I know who have been through very similar circumstances, including myself. Again, it's completely fiction, but there are so many parallels with so many different realities, and that's who I wrote it for. That's who I based the characters on, and it's important that people seem themselves in [them]. But I also recognize that people going through stuff like this don't necessarily want to read about it."
The Break tells the story of a group of people (mostly indigenous women, many related) living in and around the city's North End; there's the aforementioned Stella, witness to a brutal crime; Lou, a social worker mourning the end of a relationship; a young teen named Emily and her mother, Paul; Tommy, an idealistic Métis cop; Phoenix, a troubled adolescent who's recently run away from a group home. There's even a ghost, who floats in and out of the narrative, acting as a guide, of sorts.
"This was a really hard book to write, and it was a really hard book to put out in the world," Vermette says. "I wanted to talk about the impact of sexual violence, and the impact of the legacy of sexual violence. You can't really do that lightly."
Vermette, who is Métis, used to live in a house, like Stella's, overlooking the Break. About a decade ago, she says, she began noticing a lot of news stories and reports about acts of violence being committed by young women, which left her shaken. "I remember this overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. This idea where, if we're hurting each other, then colonialism has won. Patriarchy has won. There's no hope. We're just going to start destroying each other."
She tried to write about the subject, but "I never quite got it right. I mull things quite a long time. My books have very long gestational periods. I was thinking about it quite a bit. I was trying to write around it."
As she wrote, and new characters, new voices, muscled their way into the narrative, the book's structure eventually began to resemble "a restorative justice circle, which is when a person who has perpetuated harm sits in a circle with those that they have harmed, and everyone is telling their story. It's the idea of seeking understanding. It's the idea of accountability for harm and actions. And that's really what the book became about. So in writing around it, I developed this circle. And the great part about it was through that circle I found all these incredibly strong women who were incredibly capable and better than anyone able to deal with this situation. So I kind of wrote myself into hope.
"I needed to find that hope," she continues. "I needed to find all the good, beautiful bits. Otherwise it would just have been an incredibly sad story with no hope. That would have been bad. It would have been the Morrissey song of books."
Although Vermette couldn't have known this when she began the novel years ago, some of the novel's resonance is circumstance of timing, coming days after the Liberal government launched an independent national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Vermette knows The Break has become part of the conversation, but, as an artist, "we can only make certain contributions to the conversation," she says. "What I was trying to do is tell the story of a family. I was trying to be very specific, and very fictional. I didn't want to take from anyone's story that I didn't have permission to take … If anything, I hope this story talks about these legacies that I think many people, many indigenous women, can relate to. And it also talks about the capabilities, and especially the fundamental necessity, of family and community in order to keep everyone strong."
Vermette has two daughters, 17 and 15, and I ask about her hopes for them, and how she wants this conversation to have changed by the time they are her age.
"I want them to be proud of who they are, first and foremost. I want them to be happy people. I would love for them to live in a city that honours them. A friend of mine said recently, about the missing persons in Winnipeg, and she's an indigenous woman: 'Women who look like me go missing every day.' Those descriptions fit so many indigenous women. And that gets scary. That's your daughter, that's your cousin, that's your friend. It's something that is very close. If my children went missing, would someone look for them? My daughter's about to be 18. If she decides to go to a bar, and doesn't come home one night …"
Her voice trails off.
"All those things are realities and they're fears. I hope that they don't have those fears for their children. I hope that they're able to walk in their city, take a cab in their city, safely. I want them to live in a world where they feel that the world is watching out for them."