Connor Kerr talks to Debbie Bateman

1. In your novel, Avenue of Champions, the point of view shifts. The novel starts and ends with Granny and focuses largely on Daniel’s story, but we also hear from his brother and his former roommate at a group home. Each voice seems to hold the stories of the others. We sense the characters’ individuality and also how much they are connected. How did you come upon this way of telling the story? What influenced your choice to use a shifting point of view?

I don’t think it was necessarily a conscious choice. Most of these stories were initially written as short stories and then published throughout literary mags in Canada. I’ve always had this idea of a larger interconnected kinship narrative and how that plays out. When I was taking my MFA, my instructor Anosh Irani told me to read Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry, which is an incredible collection of eleven stories centred around a community and the individuals within it. That book kind of led the way to the development of this novel, but really this could also just be a collection of short stories too. I love the idea of character hinting between stories though. Like… when you read another story and a name gets dropped, and in that story, you get no context but because you’ve read a different story that centres around that character you have a bit of an “ah-ha” moment in your head.

2. There are humorous moments throughout the novel. Some highlight the intimacy between characters; others bring racism and injustice into sharper focus. What are your thoughts about the use of humour in fiction?

Hate it. I think one of the best things about being Indigenous is straight up just how funny we are. Even in the face of hundreds of years of colonial violence that was intended to wipe us all out we’re still here, we’re still laughing, and we’re still pushing through all that bullshit that gets placed on us. The jokes really just go on and on and on, which is an amazing thing to be around. In my own writing practice, I’ve tried to capture that, and of course writing humour is an incredibly hard thing to do. If it’s just on the page sometimes it doesn’t come across as a joke, or it’s just another line without any humour or the cadence necessary to carry it forward to the reader. It misses the point. I usually write everything out and then speak it out loud to some friends after just to see if something hits or not.

3. The stories of the Papaschase First Nation are passed down through generations. Granny received stories from her Granny who said to her, “These stories need to be told.” How does this tradition of storytelling affect your writing?

I don’t know if it necessarily affects the daily writing ritual, but in a larger thematic sense I definitely have a constant nagging thought in the back of my head that a lot of our knowledges are leaving this world when Elders pass. That’s something I worry about all the time. And I definitely lament the lost knowledges from generations that came before when it was illegal to talk about it, use language, etc., so for those who have those stories it’s an incredible honour to be able to share them, to pass them down, to talk about the Metis experience in Edmonton, to talk about the Papaschase descendant experience. I feel that and I’m hoping that I’m capturing parts of it. I have an idea for a far-off distant novel of some historical fiction centred around the Papaschase community and Edmonton throughout the 1800’s and into the 1900’s. That might be something I have to work myself up for though. I don’t feel prepared to write it just yet.

4. Women are a steadying force in the novel. Granny “stares love” into her granddaughter’s eyes. Daniel’s girlfriend, Cheryl, “tuned him up.” Can you talk about the role of women in the Papaschase culture? What is the importance of that role in this story?

Matriarchs run the show. Always have. Always will. From my limited knowledge the way I understand it is that Cree communities were matriarchal (including the Papaschase). I’ve been surrounded by strong, steadying, hilarious, tough, Indigenous women my entire life. It’s been something that I wish everyone went through, to be honest. So for these stories, I wanted the Cree and Metis women in them to have their own agency. I wanted them to be able to operate outside the confines of the male perspective within the book. Granny doesn’t need to take anyone’s bullshit for example. When her grandsons let her down, she takes her plan into her own hands. She’s the one who created the plan, enacted it, and saw it through. Not the men. They’re just cruising around, whining, and not really doing too much.

5. The land on which the city was built holds an older history that the Papaschase people see everywhere they go. Yet, the settlers around them are oblivious. How did this dichotomy, which is ever-present on the Avenue of Champions, influence your decision to write this novel?

I wrote most of the stories in this book four or five years ago now. If I was going to rewrite it (and I probably will in different variations), I would try to do a better job of capturing exactly what you mention here. I think the Canadian government did an incredible job at erasing Indigenous history throughout this country and crafting that narrative for settlers coming in. But they weren’t able to erase it amongst our own peoples, and in a place like Edmonton, an imposed colonial government has only been a micro fraction of the extensive history of the area. It wasn’t until the late 1870’s that Canada was actually able to start imposing their governance structures on the prairies. My grandmother’s grandmother (Granny in the book) was alive when the land was still under the jurisdiction of the Cree and Metis matriarchs. That carries deep in family knowledge and history, and mine isn’t the only one like that. This is living breathing memory for Indigenous peoples in these spaces. To be honest though, at this point, I don’t know if I really give a shit if non-Indigenous Peoples understand the nuanced history of the land. I’m more concerned that Indigenous Peoples might not get to learn those same stories. And I want all of the lost NDN kids in Edmonton to know that they come from rich, nuanced, beautiful cultures.

6. How did you arrive at the title? What did you want the title to do?

Avenue of Champions in Edmonton is this beautiful road (118th Avenue) that used to lead towards the old Rexall/Coliseum where the Oilers played. It’s also the neighbourhood that a lot of Indigenous peoples have moved to when they come to the city or they grew up in it. There’s a joke that my buddy told me once that you can’t throw a rock down the Avenue without hitting a Cardinal. I lived there for a long time, behind the giant baseball bat, and if I found my way back to Edmonton, I’d move back into that area. To me, the neighbourhood encompasses the strength of the community. It’s one that politicians love to “revitalize” and then forget about after they get elected. But at the end of the day, the beauty comes from the community that lives within it. Since most of the book is centred around the neighbourhood, I felt it was a fitting title. I also felt it fitting because of the irony within it.

7. Were there any other endings that you considered?

I would have loved to have flushed out the ending more. To be honest, I kind of rushed through it as I had another book burning a hole in my brain. Coming back to it, I would have expanded the idea of the failed/failing employee that Daniel has become. I think that’s such a reality in the current context of Indigenous Relations/Education/Engagement work. That these organizations bring in Indigenous Peoples around the context that they can do systemic changing work and then they just repeat the same cycles over and over again. Actually, maybe that’s just the plot of another book and not necessarily a rewritten ending. I could have spent more time here though, but I was young and dumb and wanted to have a book out.

8. Are any aspects of the book autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (such as emotional and physical experiences) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?

The entire book is autobiographical, but it’s also not. Every story has an element of reality built into it and the people who have known me quite well for decades can usually decipher the true events and things that actually happened. Obviously, names and exact details are quite changed here (though my one buddy insisted that I could keep his real name in it. I changed it despite this.) So, it runs fiction, but it also runs reality as this is something that is happening today, it happened yesterday, it’ll happen tomorrow. But when the book came out, people interviewing me treated it like it was straight biography, which I feel happens a lot. It’s hard to separate the writer from the work. Like my Granny did move to the island, but she did it on the proceeds of moonshining. She never switched to selling weed brownies. That would have been hilarious though.

9. In pushing your work beyond your first title, what were you most conscious of? What are you trying to achieve with this book in terms of your literary career?

Honestly, I’m still just happy that someone wanted to publish this (thanks Nightwood!) and that it found a few readers out there. I’m very happy that it got favourable reviews in Quill and Quire, and that people have reached out to tell me how much the book meant to them. I do like when those comments come from Metis/Cree and other Indigenous Peoples in Edmonton who have lived through this book and understand what it is, and what it can be. My literary career has already exceeded all expectations. But! I am really excited about the next novel, Prairie Edge, which is coming out with Strange Light – Penguin Random House in 2024. And I don’t think I would have gotten this publisher for my new book without Avenue of Champions being what it is.

10. Would you like to share the basic idea/germ behind the work the very first time it manifested in your mind?

While I was taking a course at the U of A from Marilyn Dumont, I wrote the story The Last Big Dance. At the time, I was upgrading (solid 2.1 GPA my first go around) to apply for the MFA program at UBC. I hate school because I don’t like people telling me what to do, but of course, that changes when there’s a prominent Metis poet teaching the class. Marilyn got us to really think back through collective family/kinship memory to plot out what “sharing a voice” can be like. And I thought about the stories that my Granny would tell me about her own upbringing in the bush north of St. Paul, and the shit they went through with the mounties. That spurred on this whole story, the whole thing, and I could go and go and go with it too. I think there are so many untold stories of the illicit violence that Indigenous women, children, and men faced throughout the settler stages of the west. These are stories that “Canada” doesn’t want to hear. But they’re coming out now and I’m glad I wrote this to have a small part of that new collective history.

Conor Kerr is a Métis/Ukrainian writer and labrador retriever enthusiast. A member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, he is descended from the Lac Ste. Anne Metis and the Papaschase Cree Nation. His Ukrainian family were settlers in Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan. In 2021 he received The Malahat Review’s long poem prize and was longlisted for the CBC poetry prize. In 2020 he won The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Poetry Award. He is the author of the novel Avenue of Champions, and the poetry collection An Explosion of Feathers.