Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Christy Jordan-Fenton

Posted on: June 26, 2014

ChristyJordanFentonChristy Jordan-Fenton was born on a farm in rural Alberta. Her only dreams were to be a cowgirl, to dance with Gene Kelly, and to write stories. She grew up being aware of how her step-father’s experiences as a Native affected both his life and the lives of her step-siblings. This made her passionate about Native rights. Thus, Christy felt blessed to have the opportunity to hear her Inuvialuit mother-in-law’s residential school experiences and to write about them. Besides fulfilling her to dream to become a writer, she is also a performing cowgirl poet and a student of natural horsemanship. She has yet to dance with Gene Kelly.

Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak Fenton began publishing stories in 2010. Their four books include two titles for middle grade readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, which were then adapted into two complementary picture books, When I Was Eight and Not My Girl. I was able to catch Christy for an interview before she left to attend Sundance and it appears below. We have talked about my asking some follow-up questions specifically about her books, as well as her doing a blog post, later in the summer. Stay tuned for my reviews over the next week!

ALLISON: In five sentences, describe life growing up on a farm.

CHRISTY: As a child, apart from my little brother, I didn’t really have many two-legged friends. One birthday I woke up and was sent out to the grain shed where a new horse was waiting for me. Often when we were hit with a late spring storm, we wound up with sheep and calves in our bathroom, much to my mother’s dismay. There was a lot of wide open space to be independent and get lost in the space between nature, imagination, and the metaphysical world. When we had to move to the city, it was hard to find that world again, except for in books, because the noise was so overwhelming.

ALLISON: Do you prefer smaller or bigger places? Why?

CHRISTY: I’m really torn between this. I love small towns and small places where there is a real sense of community. But I am adventurous and nomadic by nature and I love cities full of eclectic culture and eclectic people and all there is to explore in that. I think in an ideal world, I would spend a lot of time travelling and seeking out the cohesive communities within large cities, but I would have a small off the grid cabin somewhere with my horses and my dogs to come home to.

ALLISON: You used to write poetry and read during classes. How else would you portray yourself as a student?

CHRISTY: I was an awful student! Unless it was history, writing or art. Then I was an insanely passionate student. So much so that it also made me an awful student. I would have been a perfect candidate for unschooling. I had no lack of drive, it just had to be on my terms and I wasn’t very good at reining myself in. I got in trouble a lot. I was bored a lot and didn’t deal so well with authority.

ALLISON: Why did you join the infantry reserve? What did you gain from the experience?

CHRISTY: I suppose I read too many books written by the Lost Generation. I already knew for certain I would be a writer, but I also knew I would need life experiences to write about. I think my experience in the army helped me understand what Margaret went through much better, because women were very rare in the infantry (even reserves) at that time (and still aren’t allowed in any combat arms most places in the world). I went through a lot. But the thing I gained the most is that I tested just how much I could take and learned it a lot. That has been a wonderful gift to carry with me. When life gets trying, I know I can hang and get through it. I’m not scared of challenge.

ALLISON: What were the highlights of attending university in Australia?

CHRISTY: Hands down it was the rugby. I played lock for the University of Queensland team and we won the States at Ballymore which is where the Queensland Reds play. I also loved how friendly everyone in Brisbane was. I met so many wonderful people. And I rode a camel to watch the sun rise over Uluru. Stunning.

ALLISON: What were the highlights of living in South Africa?

CHRISTY: Everything was so fresh and new to me and the opportunities for adventure were boundless. I spent time in the townships and learned to navigate my way across Cape Town via min-bus taxi which is a very haphazard and not so safe system of transportation but made for some great stories. I knew a spot where you could swim with penguins also, and I loved that. And when the whales are calving in Hermanus it is one of the most spectacular things I have seen. What I miss the most is the street children though. I miss reading to them and cuddling them.

ALLISON: Why did you end up calling Western Canada home?

CHRISTY: I had always planned to return to Alberta, but my path kept leading me other places. I came home from South Africa weary and overloaded and I think getting back to the prairies is what I really needed. I live in BC now, but it is right next door to AB and on the eastern side of the Rockies. It’s similar terrain to where I grew up. Prairie near the mountains. I think there are certain places that just get in our bones and no matter how nomadic we may be, they will always call us back.

ALLISON: What inspired you to tell the stories of your mother-in-law?

CHRISTY: The places I lived when we moved to the city were full of residential school survivors. The tragic legacy had an enormous impact on the families and the people around me. While many Canadians don’t know about residential school even today, and even fewer Americans know about Indian Boarding School, I grew up knowing, and knowing hardly anyone outside of the indigenous community knew. When Margaret told me the story of what she did with her red stockings when she went to residential school, it was the first story of triumph I had ever heard come out of such a place. I knew right away that it was a story that could be told to all ages and was a good place to start introducing people to what happened at the schools. And Margaret had so many stories, we couldn’t just stop at one, so we kept on going.

ALLISON: You’re described as having “a desire to raise your children with a healthy sense of self-esteem rekindled her passion for Native issues”. What would you consider to be the dominant issues?

CHRISTY: Education is a huge one here in Canada. Indigenous children’s education is grossly underfunded and in many communities children must leave home after primary school to continue their education. Shannen’s Dream is a wonderful cause, started by a young Cree girl Shannen Koostachin who wanted “safe comfy schools for everyone.”

A major tragedy that has affected my community in particular, but is a nationwide problem, is the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. It is estimated that 1,200 women have gone missing or been murdered since the 1980s. To put that in perspective, if the same statistics applied to all women, there would be 50,000 missing and murdered, and contrary to many assumptions, a large part is not being perpetrated by indigenous people.

Another one that affects both sides of the border is a problem with access to clean drinking water. It is a problem from Navajo Land to Inuvik. Here, it is estimated that one-third of people living on reserves/reservations are without clean drinking water. I am not sure the statistics in the US, but I know they are also quite high.

ALLISON: What’s next in your writing career?

CHRISTY: I am working with Native Music Hall of Fame inductee Keith Secola on his metaphysical Rock Opera, Seeds which has been a great honor because the story takes place in a world so rich and colorful it completely consumes and stimulates my imagination, and the story has so much to say…. I am also working on a novel for adults about post-apocalyptic hobos…. among other things. I am the kind of writer who likes to work on many things simultaneously.

Below is a music video with which Christy was involved. It is up for an Aboriginal People’s Choice award.

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