Author: Helen Knott
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2019 (read Nov. 2021)
I picked this book up last summer when I was book shopping in Sidney on Vancouver Island (aka the book capital of the Island!). It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since taunting me. In an effort to finally read it, I put it on our book club voting list and it won as our December book pick.
I was momentarily daunted when I first started the book because I thought it might be a dense read, but I was quickly pulled into Helen’s writing style and engaging storytelling. He holds nothing back in her book foreward, making it clear who she wrote this memoir for and that she doesn’t want your pity or judgement. It’s a sobering reminder that might be off-putting to some, but I thought it was so great because it set the tone upfront that Helen is the custodian of her own story and it is hers to share for her own means. Colonialism has taken enough from her and it is her turn to take something for herself.
I definitely don’t judge her and I hope I empathize with her rather than pity her. But mostly I admire her. Technically, this is well written and I was really impressed by her calibre of writing. She says she is a great lover of literature and self reflection and I definitely found both of these to be true. Memoirs can often be more about the story than the writing since we can’t expect everyone with a meaningful story to tell to necessarily also be a good writer. But Knott has both and it made the reading experience all the more enjoyable.
Emotionally, this book is a roller coaster. Knott splits her story into 3 parts: the dreamless void, the in-between, and the healing. The dreamless void is the longest part of the book and covers her struggles with all kinds of abuse, both from violent acts perpetrated against her, as well as her ensuing addictions to alcohol and drugs. It is the hardest section to read and very much like peeling back the layers of an onion. Her turbulent home-life and the many racial injustices she and her family face chip away at her self worth and she looks for relief in all the wrong places. However, where the right places would be, I really have no idea.
Knott feels like a bit of an enigma to read about because through all her suffering and addiction, you still get glimpses of a very reflective and accomplished individual. She has pulled herself together on several occasions only to have it all fall apart again when she is unable to face her past trauma. What I admire her for are the in-between and the healing and these are the parts of her story that really stuck with me. She is able to identify the many ways in which colonialism and racism have worked against her and her family. She is able to pinpoint the long term impacts of residential schools while also not being afraid to look critically at herself. Many are unable to escape the cycle of abuse and addiction and I thought her incredibly courageous in being able to face her trauma head on and say, ‘no, I am worth something and I will not let this rule my life anymore.’
So while it is hard to read about the dreamless void, it is critical that we bear witness to it. Not, as Helen says, to educate ourselves or gain insight or humanize indigenous voices. But because these are voices we need to amplify and we have been silencing them for too long. We should be uncomfortable, but we should also be inspired.