It all started with my best friend, Diane Harris

I started writing stories 21 years ago. I was a natural story-teller and an inquisitive listener—I loved that part of being an oral historian—but I was not a writer.

My vocabulary consisted of a handful of words and the collection of strange phrases my father used like heebie jeebie, oddie moddie and sixty-fifty. He was a worldly-illiterate Bible reader (almost the only book in our home). But I always loved his wonderfully creative, if unsophisticated, way of communicating. I attended university during the 1990s so I was marginally more literate than him, but when I tried to write I couldn’t find words to fit my ideas. Stringing one sentence after the other, after the other, after the other made my head literally hurt to touch. Worse yet, making sense out of pages of sentences was excruciating.

The only reason I was writing stories 21 years ago was because in 1992 Diane, my sister-in-law, had interviewed more than 70 former students of Kuper Island Residential School. I had gone along to write the notes. She promised the people that we would share their stories—that other people would finally know what went on at Kuper. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. No one did in 1992. What we heard was horrifying. 

But Diane would not let it go until we had fulfilled her promise. She pestered me to write the stories into a book. “I can’t,” I would tell her. “I can write notes. But I can’t write a book. Especially not this book.” Can you even imagine? How could I put such profoundly disturbing and, up until then, almost entirely unwritten stories, onto the page using my pathetic vocabulary and almost non-existent writing skills? From my Bible background I called up the feelings expressed by Moses who also felt inadequate, “Please, Lord, send someone else”.

Fast forward to the late 90s. A group of us decided to write residential school stories for our local school using Diane’s interviews and others we had collected. A long story truncated. I drew the short straw. The writing was left up to me. Difficult does not begin to describe the process. I found an editor to help. A publisher found my stories and offered to publish. I said no. Diane continued to pester me. She had made the promise. This was her way to fulfil it. Finally I conceded. No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School was published in 2001. Twenty years ago.

I had never imagined becoming an author. Being published was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact I found the very idea of people reading my writing terrifying.

Being an author was an odd thing. My name (along with Rita Morris and Ann Sam, who worked on the project) were on the front of the book but they did not, in any way, reflect the crowd of people who made the story. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. I was a tiny piece of an unimaginably complex and distressing puzzle but I didn’t know where my piece fit. Amazingly, the book is still in print. It has sold many thousands of copies and in 2018 it was put on the BC schools’ curriculum list.

Awful as that experience was I was hooked on writing and I soon began what I call “Stories from my kitchen window”. From where I lived in Tsartlip First Nation I watched my kids and the neighbours’ kids making sense out of their world. The view from my kitchen window was a cross cultural landscape where people got along, where they didn’t get along, where who you were was determined by the colour of your skin and where you were defined by your parentage. As you can imagine my whiteness coloured everything.

My stories were wispy glimpses of kids getting up in the morning and facing the day in the sort of world that I lived in. I crossed cultures. Of course I did. I lived in an adopted home. One where I was never entirely comfortable nor entirely welcome. But I was a mother and it was my kids’ home so it was my home as well and it provided the window from which I observed the world.

I didn’t just write kids’ books and young adult novels, although at that time they were my favourite stories. I dabbled in social commentary, history and personal essays—18 books altogether by 2020.

Twenty years after my first book was published, books number 19 and 20 are finished and will go to press in the spring of 2021—at least that’s the plan. In April, Douglas & McIntyre will publish Unravelling Canada my first travel book. You might have guessed that it’s travel through a knitting lens. In May, Orca Books will publish Growing up Elizabeth May, my first biography (for middle school age kids). COVID might mess with the publication dates so I’ll write more about these books later.

I am celebrating this anniversary in an unusual space for me. I don’t have a book on the go. Don’t worry. I have a textbook to start and an interactive ebook to write, so I’m not out of the business. But I am enjoying a very short calm. For once I am not struggling to find words. Or bewailing the ones I have found. I am riding out 2020 in this empty space. Perhaps not an entirely empty space, you might see more blogs than ever before because, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a writing addict.

2 thoughts on “My porcelain (20 years) publishing anniversary

  1. Congratulations to you on your writing of books. I would like to read some of your books. Maybe I can look them up or track a few down. Good job. Darlene Olsen…p.s my sister Loretta is the actual book reader in the family so I will pass along to her.

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  2. 20 years! That is a milestone, Sylvia. I for one, am sure glad Diane kept pushing you. It is those uncomfortable places that are fertile for growth. Reminds me of one of my favourite songs ‘….to turn, to turn it ‘ twil be our delight… Until turning, turning we come ’round right’

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