Fernie novelist Angie Abdou has written her way into the dark in her new novel, and come to a place where the buried past emerges to confront the present.
When Abdou started writing “In Case I Go” it started out as a ghost story. But through the process of “writing into the dark,” it ended up as something different — a work of East Kootenay Gothic, showing how we can inherit our ancestors’ destinies, for better or for worse, and the way that we have to answer the questions raised by our ancestors’ lives.
Make no mistake. There are plenty of hauntings in Abdou’s fifth novel.
“In Case I Go” depicts a family returning to the ancestral home in Coalton, a small mountain town, recognizable as Fernie. They are hoping to escape their hectic city life, but a new host of problems and stresses awaits them.
Abdou spoke to the Townsman about how “In Case I Go” came to life.
“I wanted to write a horror story,” she said. “In Fernie there’s this situation where there are graves all over the place. The graveyard wasn’t very well managed way back in the coal-mining days, so human remains tend to show up around Ridgemont. I thought that would be a great setting for a horror story. I started that way, with a Stephen King kind of thing in mind.”
But Abdou found herself pulled towards more of a look at the ways we’re haunted by our ancestors’ mistakes.
“We’re haunted by the treatment of Indigenous people, we’re haunted by the environmental mistakes … And having young children, I kept thinking about what we’re leaving for our kids. The residential schools, for example, are not my son’s fault, but his generation will be the one to find a way forward. They’re haunted by mistakes of generations ago, so that’s the kind of haunting the book explores.”
The narrator and main character is Eli, a 10-year-old boy. Precocious and smart, he is at the same time physically weak — born very prematurely, labouring with asthma, not mixing well with other children. Eli befriends Mary, a troubled Ktunaxa girl who lives next door. Both children, disturbed by visions of people and places long forgotten, are challenged to account for the lives of people before them.
This writing journey led Abdou, unexpectedly, into the heart of Ktunaxa culture.
“We’re living in a time where white people are not necessarily invited to write about Indigenous people — for good reasons,” she said. “And I would never set out to write a Truth and Reconciliation book. What a heavy topic. But that’s the way the book went, because I followed these ideas of haunting. Once it was done, and I had these Ktunaxa characters in this book, I realized I would need to get permission and advice.”
Abdou reached out to a Ktunaxa Elders’ council.
“When I was telling them what the book was about, one of them said ‘we call that “talking to the old people.’ So I ended up using that phrase. In my book there are two or three characters in particular who have this skill.
“I like the vagueness of the phrase. It could mean all kinds of things.”
Abdou worked with Natasha Burgoyne, who at the time was the Ktunaxa Cultural liaison. She read the book three times, then Abdou presented a copy to the Ktunaxa elders.
“It was a new way of writing a book for me. It was collaborative at that late stage. It was stressful for me. I had no idea what to expect. But they were generous and kind, and I made huge changes in response to Natasha’s comments.”
“At one stage the character of a Ktunaxa girl was a ghost. And one person I consulted with said the main indigenous character couldn’t be a ghost, she would have to be in and of this world, the same as [Eli] — a character who is “kind of possessed” by his great-grandfather, but who is very much present in the everyday world. The Ktunaxa girl would have to be the same, otherwise the suggestion is that Indigenous people are of the past; that they’re fleeting and not really of this world.
“And suddenly I had a ghost story with no ghost in it.”
Adou said she didn’t want to write a book about the residential schools — and once you mention them then that’s what your book is about.
“Originally I wasn’t going to write about the wrong-doings. We all know what they are. But I wrote it all in after this extensive consultation. In the end it’s a much better book for that.”
The Ktunaxa element is prominent, but there’s much more to the narrative arc in “In Case I Go.” Eli’s parents have found Coalton is no longer the charming small town they remembered. Development of a high-end subdivision has disturbed a historic graveyard, drawing negative press from national media. While Eli’s father Nicholas works long hours at the local coal mine, his mother Lucy battles loneliness and depression. Thus the present conflicts with the past, and seeks resolution.
The writing process this time was a process of both discovery and rediscovery for Abdou.
“Every time I start a novel, I think I can control it somehow, and make the process easier, and I learn over and over that I can’t.
“This time I was going to do this genre thing, and I had an outline, and I was plugging along, and it wasn’t coming to life, and I wasn’t liking it. And I was thinking maybe I was done with writing.”
Then, as a guest at a writer’s conference, Abdou heard one of the other speakers talking about “writing into the dark” — when you let your creative process take over you access part of your mind that we don’t normally access, and it becomes a spiritual endeavour.
“I realized that’s the part that I love about writing, and that’s the part I wasn’t letting happen this time. And the book took a completely different turn from that point.
“I’ve heard writers talk about a book being separate from them, and that’s always seemed peculiar to me. But this time, where the book came from is a bit of a mystery for me. I’m waiting to find out why I wrote it. But paradoxically, it feels closer to me than my other books.”
The book has taken on a life of its own, and Adbou has found she has a complex relationship to it.
“I really want people to like it, and that’s such a vulnerable place to be in,” she said. “Before, maybe the books have been closer to my critical mind, and if people didn’t like it I could always argue back with them. It’s hurtful of course, but it didn’t desperately pain me.
“This one is different, I really want people to like it. Because it somehow came from my heart.
“In Case I Go” is published by Arsenal in Vancouver. It is currently available at Lotus Books Cranbrook, Polar Peek in Fernie, and online. It will soon be available in bookstores across the country.
Lotus and Polar Peaks bookstore in Fernie. It is available online, and will be everywhere in the country soon.
Lotus Books is hosting a book launch for “In Case I Go,” Friday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. The author will be in attendence.