Third-generation residential school survivor, poet and attorney Francine Merasty will be a featured author at Electric Mermaid Live Reads on April 16. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Third-generation residential school survivor, poet and attorney Francine Merasty will be a featured author at Electric Mermaid Live Reads on April 16. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Residential school survivor and poet to read at Electric Mermaid

Electric Mermaid: Live Reads takes place online via Zoom on Friday, April 16 at 5:45 p.m.

A third-generation residential school survivor, poet and attorney Francine Merasty will be a featured author at the next virtual Electric Mermaid event.

Electric Mermaid: Live Reads from Char’s Landing takes place online via Zoom on Friday, April 16 at 5:45 p.m.

Merasty is the author of Iskotew Iskwew: Poetry of a Northern Rez Girl. She is a Nehithaw Iskwew from Opawikoschikanek ochi, a reserve in Northern Saskatchewan. She is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and a fluent Cree speaker.

After she graduated from high school, Francine Merasty went to university to get her BA in psychology. She went to work for a First Nations organization working with health, education and welfare and returned to university to earn a law degree and become an attorney.

Merasty’s work found its voice when she took her first job out of law school, working for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as a statement taker and legal counsel.

“That work was so devastating,” she said.

As a statement taker, she spent time sitting in hotel rooms, interviewing the family members of murdered or missing women.

“There was no script – they could tell you anything,” she recalled. “The first statement I took was four hours long. When it was done, I couldn’t breathe – there was something stuck right here. I went to walk it off. I had to debrief later that night – everyone was feeling that way, everyone in that group.”

“I did this work for six to eight months – it was really working on me,” said Merasty. “I tried to get into therapy, about the stuff I was hearing, to help me cope – I was busy traveling, so I started writing poetry, just started writing. I think my body was responding in a positive way, rather than going through this horrific stuff, I’d be writing. When you’re writing poetry, you engage all the senses. You go deep into memories, thoughts and words – it takes you away.”

She’s since had poems published in The Polyglot (Indigenous Languages Issue), Alaska Quarterly Review and Briarpatch. She’s been honoured by the Indigenous Voices Awards and as a speaker at the Empowering Indigenous Women Conference in Saskatchewan. Her poetry was chosen by former U.S. poet laureate Tracey K Smith to be included in this years edition of The Best American Poetry 2021.

Her book of poetry, Poetry of a Northern Rez Girl, is due out this spring with Bookland Press, and a version in Cree is expected this winter.

Merasty is a third-generation survivor of Canada’s residential school system: her grandmother and her father were also taken into the residential school system.

As a child, Merasty spoke Cree exclusively. She noticed that her grandmother (now 93) was smart and funny and likeable, but had difficulty showing affection.

Her parents had 11 children, so their three-bedroom home was overcrowded, and in the 1980s she was sent to Prince Albert Indian Residential School, where she attended for grades three and four. She lived in a bunk-bed dorm, with uniforms and a mess hall, with 20 girls ages seven to nine and one attendant for all of them. The workers were Indigenous; the teachers were white. The lessons were all in her second language, English. There was a lot of loneliness for a little girl from a big family.

“There was nobody to give you a hug or kiss there,” she said, noting the experience had a lasting impact on her life. “It affected my life mentally, with depression and anxiety. I’m not comfortable in a lot of situations. I have a totally negative view of residential schools … For anybody that went to residential school, it was a negative impact. It still has an emotional impact,” she said.

Merasty currently works for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan. She lives in Saskatoon.

Electric Mermaid artistic director Jacqueline Carmichael said she’s grateful Merasty will share her voice with the Electric Mermaid audience.

“Francine’s poetry is very powerful, and her story remarkable,” said Carmichael. “We’re very grateful she’s going to be with us. So many Indigenous women and men were impacted by the residential school system, it’s important that we listen with respect to those who are able and willing to share their words.”

Feature reader Michelle Butler Hallett will also read from her latest book, Constant Nobody (Goose Lane Editions March 2021).

Butler Hallett is the author of the novels Constant Nobody, This Marlowe, deluded your sailors, Sky Waves, and Double-blind, and the story collection The shadow side of grace. Her short stories are widely anthologized: The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, Hard Ol’ Spot, Running the Whale’s Back, Everything Is So Political, and Best American Mystery Stories 2014.

Butler Hallett’s work was praised by Books in Canada for “economy and power,” while The Globe and Mail noted that “demons are at work.” Of Butler Hallett’s first novel, Double-blind, the 2008 Sunburst Award Jury said: “Sanity, madness, torture in the name of science — Double-blind is wonderfully original while chillingly based in history. … The writing is incredibly layered, with metaphor and symbol perfectly balanced against the hard neutrality of scientific language.”

Michelle Butler Hallett lives in St John’s, Newfoundland.

“Butler Hallett’s wonderful writing has been widely recognized, and we are so glad she’ll be on the Electric Mermaid stage at Char’s Landing via Zoom,” said Jacqueline Carmichael.

An online Zoom event set for the third Friday of each month, Electric Mermaid: Live Reads from Char’s Landing is free to attendees at www.charslanding.com. Writers who would like to read their own work in the curated open mic can sign up at ElectricMermaidReads@gmail.com for a spot of up to five minutes.