There’s a phrase in Jónína Kirton’s memoir, Standing in a River of Time, where she speaks of belonging. Of Metis and Icelandic extraction, the author and poet walked between two worlds, the white one and the Indigenous one. Shamed and scorned by both worlds, she has always felt an outsider until, she writes, she is ‘standing in doorway’ and realizes where she belongs but the journey towards healing is a long one. (109)
Most of us have resources to guide us. We recognize who we are and are able to go forward with our lives. What if you do not have such guides? What if the hand you know is a sharp slap across the face or a sudden punch to the stomach? What if the words spoken are unkind and disparaging? What if the people you depend on are also lost to generations of abuse and neglect? What do you do?
Kirton, in her memoir, takes us through her journey, a painful and a heart-wrenching one. The author’s story is not only one of a woman traumatized but that of an Indigenous woman gone missing in body, mind and spirit and all because of colonialism. You wonder as you read how she will survive. But survive she does. The author writes in short paragraphs and the sentences flow like the symbolic river she is standing in, the waters bringing forth the wreckage of her past. The author pulls the debris out, one item at a time, to show us that revealed, they represent the events she is trying to understand. Kirton complements her prose by adding poems to each section.
Early in her book, the author talks of being brown in her poem, “Dirty”, how her parents tried to eliminate her brownness, her Indigeneity: “no one was happy/that I was a girl/that I was brown/everyone kept pushing/polishing whitening/cream but one method”, the words of the poem stressing the exploitation of her people, shaming them into performing acts completely different from their culture. (53,54)
Wounded and scarred, she goes through many tragedies. They are devastating and they traumatize. There are the deaths of younger siblings that are incomprehensible and Kirton spends almost a lifetime searching for answers. Not only is she carrying this heavy load, but there is the death of a dear mother, the anguish of her father, and these elements push the author into deeper despair. She struggles, becomes numb. Inconsolable, she turns to alcohol that becomes a companion but not a favorable one and its presence only fuels her desperation. In one instance in her poem, ‘Tumbling’, she writes, “for so long I carried the dead/afraid to let go”. (199)
Eventually she realizes she has to let her burdens go, to remember the dead not as burdens but as enlightenment, that the day will come when all people will acknowledge the wrong doing of colonialism. In one of her final poems, Kirton makes peace with the water as it washes at her past until she is “fully immersed to silence/where all is well.” (198)
Sometimes, reading Kirton’s work, you wonder how long it will take for people to realize that the Indigenous are not invisible, that they are real people who belong here in our time as they did in the time long ago. Kirton writes towards the end of the book that in healing there is an Indigenous teaching that says “when we heal, we heal seven generations forward and seven back”. (23)
In the final pages of her work, the author writes, “I am a weaving of two cultures”. (196) This statement is a comforting one; if the poet can accept that she belongs to both the Metis and the Icelandic cultures then we as humans can also accept the differences in all peoples who live on this land.
Standing in a River of Time
by Jónína Kirton
Talonbooks, Spring 2022, 224 p.p., $19.95
Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.