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Oral narratives and contemporary storytelling in the Fraser Valley

It’s easy for Fraser Valley residents to lament the lack of artistic creativity in the community — but UFV’s Literatures of the Fraser Valley conference proved how outdated that point of view is. Hip-hop artists, writers, storytellers, and keepers of oral tradition came together to showcase the range and depth of the Fraser Valley literary scene.



Illustration by Anthony Biondi

By: Valerie Franklin, Nadine Moedt, Martin Castro, and Katie Stobbart Email

Print Edition: March 11, 2015

Illustration by Anthony Biondi

It’s easy for Fraser Valley residents to lament the lack of artistic creativity in the community — but UFV’s Literatures of the Fraser Valley conference proved how outdated that point of view is. Hip-hop artists, writers, storytellers, and keepers of oral tradition came together to showcase the range and depth of the Fraser Valley literary scene. The conference consisted of four themed sessions, each with a panel of lectures followed by a facilitated discussion. The event was brought together by Ceilidh Hart of the English Department.

The day wrapped up at AfterMath, where students, faculty, and community members gathered for further readings of poetry and prose.

Considering creativity:

artistic production in the valley

“Light Through the Cedars: Discovering Subversive Communities in the Fraser Valley”

by Paul Falardeau

UFV alumnus Paul Falardeau spoke first, pointing out that the image of the Fraser Valley as a cultural desert is quickly changing as distinct new artistic voices rise from the community. However, he noted that the city still marginalizes artists and writers in many ways, such as by failing to acknowledge the artistic community in its urban planning, and by perpetuating the common view of art as a commodity rather than as a pillar of culture. Wearing a sprig of Oregon grape on his lapel, Falardeau also emphasized the importance of connecting with the natural world and incorporating environmental stewardship into political action.

“We need to move away from corporatism and government that does not govern,” he added.

“The Resonance of Oral Traditions”

by Erica Jurgens

Erica Jurgens, a First Nations educator and UFV alumna, spoke on the importance of oral traditions as aboriginal languages and stories are threatened with extinction, likening aboriginal cultures to raindrops falling into the ocean of the dominant culture. Born biracial, Jurgens described the European and Aboriginal aspects of her identity as “twins” within her soul — but she didn’t learn the songs, stories, and history of her people, and so one twin was smaller and weaker, and gradually died.

Like Falardeau, Jurgens suggested that in order to heal our society, we must find ways to connect with nature, with each other, and with our own identities.

“All cultures trace back to tribal ways … We need to look back to those ways to find better ways of conducting ourselves on this Earth,” she said.

“Never Surrey, Maybe Vancouver and Far Too Often New York: Teaching Creative Writing in the Fraser Valley”

by Billeh Nickerson

Local poet and Kwantlen instructor Billeh Nickerson spoke on the struggle of getting creative writing students to set their stories in the Lower Mainland, let alone the Fraser Valley. Not only does transplanting stories and characters to big American cities mean a loss of authenticity in the writing — “‘Have you been to New York?’ ‘Yeah, I saw it on Law & Order!’” Nickerson quipped — but it indicates the deeper problem of devaluing the Fraser Valley’s culture.

Nickerson finished by reading his poem “13 Ways of Looking at the Fraser Valley.”

History of place and building community

“Building Connections: Popular Literature and Sikh History in the Fraser Valley”

by Rishma Johal

Rishma Johal, a recent SFU graduate, spoke on the long-standing history of Sikhs in the Fraser Valley, as well as the importance of building connections within a community. Johal noted the importance of Abbotsford’s Sikh temple, saying that the “establishment of [the] Sikh temple was symbolic, and marked … harmony between residents of the Fraser Valley and Sikhs at the time.” Johal stressed the importance of fostering a sense of pride and community within South Asian immigrants to Canada: “South Asian Canadians are not outsiders, but long-standing Canadians within Fraser Valley … it is their rightful home.”

“The Epistolary Farm: Constructing Settler Culture in Langley from Afar”

by Jane Watt

Watt spoke on the importance of First Nations lands: “Not why they matter, but how they matter.” Watt illustrated the importance of First Nations lands and community through several examples of 19th-century correspondence with figures such as George Underwood.

“Together, [these narratives] offer a story of the leisurely pace of settlement,” said Watt, noting that there is a “breezy banality to [the] letters” which makes the struggles of early settlers less distant and more relatable. “Together, they form an iconic Canadian [pioneering] story.”

“Woolgathering: Fibre Artists Contradict Journalists in Published Works about Cowichan Woolworking”

by Paula Johnson

Johnson handed out Cowichan sweaters to the audience for viewing, speaking on their history, and the way that knitting is used by First Nations peoples to convey stories. She noted that the current commercial production of Cowichan sweaters lacks these stories: “Authentic is not really a word you can use in terms of what’s being made now. Artists are like musicians jamming together … you learn from the people you’re with.”

Oral narratives of the

Fraser Valley

“Stó:l? Protocols and Oral History”

by Eddie Gardner

UFV’s elder in residence opened the intergenerational Stó:l? panel with a discussion of his journey home to Stó:l? territory.

“I didn’t become an ‘Indian’ under the meaning of the Indian Act until I was 55,” Gardner shared. “Now I’m learning how to be a ‘status’ Indian.” Gardner talked a little about himself as a “wild salmon warrior,” and his passion for protecting our waterways. Joined by panel member Teresa Warbus, the elders shared a song in honour of the meal of wild salmon provided for the conference participants.

Gardner began his discussion by reading an excerpt from Keith Thor Carlson’s The Power of Place, the Problem of Time, which explores issues of identity and memory in a history marred by colonialism, and followed by sharing some of the stories important to the Stó:l?.

“These stories need to be told … as they were passed down in oral history,” Gardner said. “The old ones always told the children, ‘These stories are true, these things really happened and there is evidence of them in the landscape.’”

“Sxwoxwiyam and ‘Storywork’ in the Fraser Valley”

by Winona Victor

Victor, an instructor in the indigenous studies program at UFV and member of the Ts’elxwéyeqw tribe, told a mix of Sxwoxwiyam, which are stories of the ancient past — sometimes called “myth time” — and Sqwelqwel, more modern stories that belong to people, families and communities.

From the Sxwoxwiyam, Victor focused her lecture on T’xwelátse, a great warrior turned into stone, recently repatriated to the Stó:l? people. For her Sqwelqwel, Victor told of her own personal connection and experience with T’xwelátse.

Our ancestors, said Victor, are “the key of our society, the key of our livelihood. They are our everything, and they need to be listened to and recentred.”

“Hip-Hop as Contemporary Storytelling”

by Teresa Warbus

Warbus is a spoken-word artist and student, currently enrolled in UFV’s Lens of Empowerment program. Warbus spoke on hip-hop and rap as a new means of telling stories, and shared some of her work as a spoken word artist. Her raps are sad, defiant, confused, and unquestionably beautiful, addressing topics of genocide and colonialism in a creative way. Warbus described her work as an attempt to reach her generation by telling stories differently.

“It means a lot, what art and words and literature do to bring us together to be able to experience something together, to all feel something in one moment together.”

Reading the Valley

“Sustenance of the Soul: A View of Food in Literature of the Fraser Valley and West Coast”

by Dessa Bayrock

“Each meal serves as an oral history on a plate,” says Bayrock. In her paper she explored the connections between the food we eat and our identities via literature. She referred to a selection of Vancouver-based fiction and poetry, including Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony and Evelyn Lau’s A Grain of Rice. Food, Bayrock argues, is an act of literally consuming culture; this is reflected in how we portray it in literature.

Dessa Bayrock is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Cascade.

“Creating an Enchanted Reality: A Magical Setting Inspired by the Valley”

by Emily Seitz

Seitz, an honours creative writing student at UFV, recently completed her fantasy children’s novel; rather than present a strictly scholarly paper, she used readings from her manuscript to set the framework for her presentation. She suggests local settings supply ideal inspiration for creative works. In her case, the inspiration for her novel was Harrison Lake. Seitz says that in her writing project, the real world is connected to a world of magic, and a sense of childlike wonder informs her exploration of enchanted realism.

“Tablecloth and River: Tomson Highway’s ‘Mega Banquet’ in Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout”

by Shelley Boyd

In her paper, Boyd navigated ethnicity, religion, and gender in Highway’s play and explored the symbolic significance of the river used as a tablecloth in the central feast motif.

Boyd said the play enables the voices of First Nations women who were muted or silenced to be given “an opportunity to speak through food.” Gender and ethnicity also interact metaphorically; Boyd used a line from the play in which Laurier gorges himself on “beaver and tits” as an example of sexual wordplay underlined by a “cannibalized colonialism,” representing the rape of First Nations culture.

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