Rebecca Thomas, a former poet laureate of Halifax, didn’t have to consider her answer for long when a local publisher asked her to write a companion picture book to Rita Joe’s famous poem, I Lost My Talk.
“It was such an honour and I agreed right away,” said Thomas.
I’m Finding My Talk, Thomas’s first published book, will have its launch at Open Book Coffee on Wednesday.
The publishing firm approached Thomas over a year ago to write a poem in response to Joe’s poem, serving as the ‘next generation of cultural reclamation,’ said Thomas.
I’m Finding My Talk is a hardcover children’s picture book. It’s being simultaneously published with I Lost My Talk, also as a children’s book.
Joe’s poem illustrates the pain of being forbidden to speak her own language while at Shubenacadie’s residential school. It is the same school Thomas’s father attended.
Thomas didn’t know about residential schools until university, or that her father was a survivor. Thomas said she wants her book to help tell the stories she didn’t hear growing up — Indigenous stories “with heart.”
Thomas said Joe’s work has been a large influence on her own poetry. When she became Halifax’s first Mi’kmaw poet laureate, she said she didn’t feel right about the accolade.
“I felt that Rita Joe was the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaw people of Nova Scotia,” said Thomas.
She felt connected to Joe’s poetry despite not having gone to residential school herself. She felt the struggle of reclaiming her culture in a colonial society.
“It doesn’t feel real,” she said. “It’s such an honour to he tied to her work in some way.”
‘A whole new audience’
Ann Joe, Rita’s daughter, said she was “floored” when she read the books together for the first time.
“We’re very happy and we’re very proud,” she said.
She said she knew her mother’s poetry was powerful, but she said seeing the lines of poetry paired with vibrant illustrations drove the message home in a deeper way.
“It’s like there’s a new audience for it now, for children,” she said.
She said when her mother was alive, she had faith that her work would live on. “I don’t know how she knew, but she was right.”
Thomas is continuing the story that her mother started, she said.
“It’s so nice to see. My mom left an imprint on our culture. And it’s still going.”
I’m Finding My Talk is full of vibrant art that accompanies lines of the poem. The art was done originally on canvas with acrylic paint by Mi’kmaw artist Pauline Young.
“It’s not even that this is just a digital piece of art that lives on a computer somewhere,” said Thomas. “These are actually paintings that were done up of my family by an incredibly talented artist.”
Because Thomas learned about stories that reflected her own so much later in life, she hopes Indigenous children might feel represented in the book.
“I hope non-Indigenous people can read this and see how important cultural reclamation is to people like me, to the Indigenous community,” she said.
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