#312 A sesquicentennial smorgasbord
The Language of Family: Stories of Bonds and Belonging
by Michelle van der Merwe (editor)
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2017
$27.95 / 9780772670526
Reviewed by Claire Sicherman
First published May 30, 2018
When I first held The Language of Family in my hands, I could feel the faint stirring of emotion, the way one would with any work of art, and I just let my fingers caress the book for a while before I opened it.
A bird’s nest sits on the cover, and tucked into this nest are three eggs made out of words printed on thin strips of paper that look like they’re made out of papier-mâché.
Words pop out from the nest: family, belong, Canadian, immigrants, continents, countries. And then tucked under another strip of paper, these two words offered by spoken word poet, Ann-Bernice Thomas: “…interconnected beings.”
On the back of the book there are bits of dirt, twigs, grass, leaves, and fern. Parts of the nest are spread throughout this book, much in the way Canadian families are often spread throughout the world.
The Royal B.C. Museum and Archives’ celebrates Canada’s 150th anniversary with this anthology, filled with poems, essays, and personal narratives, along with archival photographs.
Editor Michelle van der Merwe and twenty contributors from across British Columbia ask the reader, “What is family?” Is it defined by blood or can we choose its members and create our own?
Like the writers of this collection of stories, the answers to the question of how to define “family” are also quite diverse. From museum curators, First Nations, LGBTQ, Japanese Canadian, Indo Canadian and many other writers, these stories challenge the reader to explore different ideas of what makes up a family.
Is it our connection to the land? Our sense of belonging? Our relationships? Our histories of migration, colonization, or exclusion?
Or is it the way we relate to one another, how we are all interconnected?
Museum director and CEO Jack Lohman, in “Embracing the Family,” suggests a broad definition:
Perhaps now, as Canada reaches its 150th anniversary of Confederation, is the time to propose the family as a new symbol of national unity. Family as homeland, family as space and time, family as loss and absence, family as burden, family as memory or absence of memory, family as identity, family as history, family as narrative.
The Language of Family then moves the reader beyond the traditional definition of family, as individuals related by blood or through marriage.
Lohman asks, “What is Canada if not a giant family, of different branches, of the Indigenous and the immigrant, of adoptions and intermarriages?”
As the writers in The Language of Family show us, families are also made up of neighbours, friends, elders, tribe, territory, ancestors, and even the ways in which we connect and belong to the land.
In “River Relations,” Sadhu Binning writes, “These are the times when one understands that family is not limited to a basic unit — large or small — but rather to an idea, a feeling. It covers so many different types of connections that one makes with other human beings during the course of one’s life. The family, in this sense, is spread across space and time.”
Perhaps “it’s not only blood that ties us together as family,” writes contributor Luke Marston, but “the unconditional love that we share as humans.”
Maybe this is a better definition for family then. The ways in which we share our lives, care for each other, remember one another, share experiences, cultures and histories, the land, and a sense of belonging as Joy Kogawa writes in “A Moment by a Cherry Tree:”
My deepest sense of belonging and connection is not with my biological family, or with the people of my ethnicity, country, communities or friends. It comes, rather, during an overwhelming “I-know-not-what,” an utter belongingness that arises unbidden from time to time.
Bev Sellars, in “A Quiet Connection,” writes that for an Indigenous person, family is first cousins, aunties, uncles, territory and tribe, but family also includes Indigenous people from around the world. Sellers says it’s the values that connect to the land and a shared history of colonization which allow Indigenous people to understand each other, despite differences in language and physical setting.
If it’s true that we are all interconnected, and that it is through love and the ways in which we share our lives that makes up family, then it is how we treat each other that really matters.
This insight is taken up by some of the contributors. In “The Voices of our Ancestors,” Monique Gray Smith writes:
Those voices … they remind us we have a responsibility to hold each other up with kindness, love, and respect.
Those voices, you know them, they are your Ancestors.
The Language of Family reminds the reader that although our stories are unique, it is through them that we connect.
In her spoken word piece, “Family Tree,” Ann-Bernice Thomas writes about this interconnection:
And the earth is my plaything
connecting everything to everything,
we are interconnected beings,
returning to the earth,
knowing it will remember us.
Connecting is exactly what The Language of Family does. It takes us out of our own ideas of family and offers something different. It offers stories that, in their very difference, serve to unite us instead of break us apart.
Claire Sicherman is the author of Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press 2017), reviewed here by Mark Dwor. She facilitates a Journaling Circle on Salt Spring Island, which is part of a multi-generational writing project called Home Words.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster